Schu Strings: Stepping back to move forward

When Mike Stoops speaks, he talks in terms familiar to Arizona football fans. He says things like his Wildcats compete, they play hard, they're getting better. He embraces the importance of defense and special teams. In short, a variation of the old ways has returned, but for UA football it's a necessary regressive progression.

In computer parlance, what we're seeing is Tomey Ball, Version 2.0. For many Wildcat fans who felt slighted by Dick Tomey's conservative approach to the game, this is probably a more frustrating time than initially anticipated. After all, Arizona is relying on a stingy defense to keep it in the game because the offense has been consistently ineffective.

Additionally, the play selection is reminiscent of Tomey's approach. Sure, Arizona passes the ball more, but it does so in a very conservative fashion, and in a way that hasn't yielded consistent results on the scoreboard. The UA scored 21 points against NAU, and had to register two fourth-quarter touchdowns to reach that high-water mark. It managed six points in the Utah game and just a touchdown against Wisconsin while failing to surpass 200 yards total offense on that soggy afternoon.

Even during the game's final sequence, where Arizona drove to the Wisconsin 25 only to suffer an illegal procedure penalty and a series of safe plays up the middle that lost two yards, it looked like no new uniform could hide the truth. This was Arizona in 1992, not 2004.

But in 2004, this is how Arizona has to be. After awhile, the Tomey conservative approach ran its course, largely because the UA was conservative to a fault, and its head coach seemed to relish the challenge and opportunity to build character in a grind-it-out style more than utilizing the talent on the roster to its potential. With Arizona's offense right now, it's hard to make that argument. Tailback Mike Bell appears to have the most game-breaking ability, but so far this season he's struggled holding onto the ball. The loss of Biren Ealy (who figures to return shortly) has limited Arizona's ability to stretch the field. If anything, Nic Costa and Steve Fleming seem to be underused ingredients so far.

But the bottom line is, at this stage Arizona doesn't have the manpower to go toe-to-toe in offensive slugfests. Its best opportunity for success is clock management, long, sustained drives and a minimal number of mistakes, because it's become apparent that Arizona's defense has made faster strides than most anticipated.

But will this be the norm during the Mike Stoops era? Will the UA play close to the vest, thus playing to keep it close instead of unveiling a killer instinct and adopting a take-no-prisoners mentality? I don't think so, given offensive coordinator Mike Canales' reputation, and given the UA's pursuit of quality skill players in the prep ranks.

To win consistently at the college level, teams have to be able to succeed in a number of environments. There will be defensive struggles; there will be shootouts. Defense will always be a priority, but in Arizona's future, it won't happen at the expense of a potent offense.

But that's the future. In the present, the Wildcats have to keep things close, and keep things conservative to give themselves the best chance to win. It's stepping back before moving forward.


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